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Kai Peters

Ashridge Business School

Chief Executive

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Developing next generation leaders for a sustainable future – the stewardship model


Human resource professionals and leaders alike have many responsibilities, and perhaps among the most important is developing the next generation of leaders and being more innovative as times change rapidly before our eyes.

The right leadership style is important in the good times, but is even more essential in the face of budget reductions, fundamental changes to ways of working and increasing pressures on resources. 

New research from Ashridge Business School provides a road-map to develop more holistic leaders who are stewards of the future and better prepared to meet challenges.

Outdated modes of leadership
The global financial crisis and the rapid pace of globalisation are radically changing the definition of what makes a good business leader. Traditional heroic models and charismatic styles of leadership are under attack, largely because corporate scandals have destroyed trust in the integrity of many of those in power.

Competition is intense, economic times are difficult and organisations need leaders who can deliver results for shareholders and ensure a sustainable future for the business.  At the same time, we are operating in an age of total transparency where unscrupulous behaviour can’t be swept under the carpet and consumers are increasingly vocal about their desire for companies to demonstrate social conscience as well as pursuit of profit.  These changing times call for a radical departure from the leadership styles of the past. 

A new post-heroic approach to leadership is needed, where executives empower, inspire and strengthen the leadership of others. This will enable the executives of the future to build strong sustainable organisations that are held in trust for future generations – in sharp contrast to a conventional command and control leadership style focused on reducing costs and creating profit.

The steward leader – a model for next generation executives
Leaders should rededicate themselves to care and the principles of stewardship – a form of leadership that focuses on others, the community and society at large.

Stewardship advocates service over self-interest and provides a road-map for developing the next generation leader. Steward leaders have both the desire and the skills to develop organisations which are sustainable in every sense of the word.

What does a steward leader look like?
Steward leaders are those who are motivated by justice and dignity and who can see the bigger picture. Their emphasis is on delivering results with others – and they are skilled in bringing networks and resources together in pursuit of a common aim.

There are of course leaders who already take this stewardship approach  – but our research has shown that they tend to be at the more mature end of the age spectrum.  Many executives beyond a certain age develop a concern or orientation for the ‘common good’ and become interested in issues relating to society-at-large. 

This tendency to become less self-interested and to engage constructively with others is a natural part of the process of maturing.  But if we are to develop truly sustainable organisations, we need to see this stewardship approach develop much earlier in people’s careers and lifetimes.

Can stewardship be developed?
In our new book ‘Steward Leadership’, we identify the nine essential dimensions of stewardship and debate what they are and how they can be developed.

Development of a stewardship mindset cannot, however, be ‘taught’ by a teacher or facilitator – it requires the individual to have some kind of internal impetus to evolve in this way and a willingness to move away from conventional approaches.  Our research suggests that non-rational resources, such as dreams, insights, creative and spiritual experiences and emotions, are important in developing sustainable leaders. People who are prepared to step outside of the ‘norm’ and draw on these resources have less to fear from being authentic and wearing their heart on their sleeve.

What does this mean for organisations in terms of talent management and leadership development processes? 
First of all, they need to broaden their talent pools and think more widely and creatively about the kind of people most likely to be capable of leading the business in a sustainable way in the future.  Managers who are most likely to progress successfully towards this style are those who are resilient, flexible and more liberal. 

Managers least likely to succeed are those who place high value on ‘conforming’ to the expectations of others.  They may think the right thoughts and want to make the ethical decisions, but find the accepted social environment of the organisation difficult to break away from.

In practical terms, organisations who want to develop steward leaders need to shift their approach to development and place higher priority on providing immersive, experiential learning which impacts leaders on an emotional level and motivates and inspires them to embed sustainability in the business.  Witnessing the effects of climate change or deforestation first hand, for example, can be a transformative experience.

The following five points are key to helping organisations achieve real shifts in mindsets and develop new sustainable behaviours:

  • Experiential learning is crucial. Getting a first- hand experience of what today’s global and societal challenges are all about is what makes a rationally understood idea at the back of the mind come alive and makes someone want to act on it.
  • You can’t just give people a random experience; you have to help them work out its business relevance. The best mechanism is a project-based business challenge, where participants have to develop some kind of project with business value based on their experience.
  • Clear sponsorship and involvement from the CEO and other senior leadership is vital. This is one area is where walking the talk really counts. The stories those at the top tell must be true, consistent and authentic if people are to believe and follow.
  • Unconventional approaches to development may be met by scepticism within the business at first – but it’s important to allow potential leaders to explore their spirituality, work on psychological issues (i.e. Perfectionism, fear of failure) which may be impeding their progress and to support them in their attempts to embrace a wide spectrum of thoughts and feelings.
  • Provide active support when individuals return to the organisation after an experiential development experience.  This helps convert a shift in mind-set to a habitual new behaviour. Consider things like giving people enhanced job roles, encouraging line managers to be supportive, having a dedicated co-ordinator to provide on-going encouragement recognising and rewarding positive new behaviours.
  • Steward leadership is a more empowering form of transformational leadership. These developmental activities help leaders adopt the qualities of ‘stewards’ earlier in people’s careers, and earlier in their lifetimes, to help create a new, more sustainable, future. 

Kai Peters is co-author, together with Kurt April and Julia Kumar, of Steward Leadership: A Maturational Perspective published by the University of Cape Town Press (2013).

5 Responses

  1. Thanks…

    …for replying Kai (and Jamie)

    The company I'm with is working hard at the moment to develop the kind of e-learning platforms that can support experience-based learning relationships amid the hustle and bustle of a modern fast moving business.

    We're making some exciting discoveries about adapting traditional e-learning to a contemporary context – I think that enabling organisational leaders to work with social/mobile/tablet-based media and stay in contact with their teams is going to be a key challenge not just for my industry going forward, but for business itself.

  2. A holistic approach

    Rob Keery's point is well taken. What we are trying to illustrate is that "just teaching" is insufficient, but that a more holistic approach which combines teaching with experiential follow ups can make a significant difference and an organisation can help to foster such a learning culture. Here at Ashridge, we firmly believe in combining face-to-face activities in the classroom, with coaching, adding some e-learning support, and ensuring that the learning experience is firmly grounded in real projects for the host organisation. Many issues concerning stewardship are about using judgment in the grey areas, making trade-offs and thinking through the consequences.Just doing that as a paper exercise can be misleading. Thinking that through with real live situations is formative.

  3. Thanks

    Thanks for the comment Rob and welcome to HRZone. Kai is the expert on this so I'll ask him to follow up on your thoughts.

  4. Yeesh – sorry!

    That was my first comment here – apologies for the bad paragraph formatting!

  5. Good article, throwing light

    Good article, throwing light on a huge blind spot within current business culture. 'A new post-heroic approach to leadership' is a great phrase, a real keeper!
    The point about this attitude being impossible to 'teach' is also well taken, but it would be a mistake to assume that there is nothing an organisation can do to foster this kind of attitude in its leaders (and those who must of course consent to be stewarded!)
    I've just taken on a role within an e-learning company which is developing systems to support this kind of interaction between all organisational levels. It's becoming increasingly possible to install practices that support a culture of learning and development that empowers individuals to grow their skills and knowledge in ways commensurate with their own habits and preferences – be it learning from the web, or in informal situations, and wherever they happen to be.
    If I'm understanding the article correctly, these are the kind of practices that a steward-leader would be looking to inculcate horizontally across an organisation – systems of support and feedback that are smooth with how people experience the reality of their day-to-day work (and their wider lives too!)
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Kai Peters

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